RACE TO THE SWIFT: Thoughts on Twenty First Century Warfare

reviewed by Col Henry L. Trimble

RACE TO THE SWIFT: Thoughts on Twenty First Century Warfare. By Richard E. Simpkin. Brassey’s Defence Publisher’s, London, 1985, 345 pp., $32.50 (Member $29.25)

The debate concerning the merits of maneuver versus attrition warfare continues. BGen Richard Simpkin is a recognized maneuver warfare theorist who has had an exceptional career in the British Army as a combat tanker and in the development of armored weapons. He is a linguist and lecturer on defense matters in this and other countries. His stated hope is that this book will provide a wider understanding of war so as to enable soldiers and politicians to use armed force quickly and precisely (if at all), thus avoiding the terrible bloodshed of the past. The underlying thesis of Race to the Swift is that large, standing, heavily armored armies have lost their usefulness; that these armies with their “baroque” weapons will join nuclear weapons as an “unusable” deterrent.

Gen Simpkin’s theory is that weapons and doctrines of war have a life of approximately 50 years. In a world where terrorism, revolutionary warfare, and violent competition between north and south are prevalent, he believes doctrines and weapons, which had their genesis between the two World Wars, gradually become less germane. Guderian’s theory of blitzkrieg and the Soviet deep operation theory developed by Tukhachevski are, he explains convincingly, quickly losing validity in a changing world.

In the second section entitled “The Physics of War,” Gen Simpkin puts forth a remarkable and masterful exposition of the theory of maneuver warfare. He constructs a fluid, dynamic model in which such elements as leverage, momentum, velocities, and tempo can be clearly combined by the maneuverist into a synergy of military effectiveness. He compares the combat commander to a symphony orchestra conductor who brings penetrating and overpowering music to the listener from the disparate sec tions of strings, horns, and percussion. Further on the author offers valuable insights as to the effects and management of such factors as surprise, risk, and luck. He also emphasizes the importance of “directive control.” In the heat and stress of battle, Gen Simpkln insists, subordis must have a clear understanding of the commander’s intent in order to react instinctively and contribute to the common goal. Here again is the analogy of the war fighter and concert performer. The commander and his subordinates must be well “attuned” to one another, having mutual trust and respect.

In the future, Gen Simpkin posits, large, tank-heavy armies must give way to smaller, lighter, and much more maneuverable units transported by light armored vehicles and, more importantly, helicopters. He brings Mahan’s theory of naval warfare across the beach, seeing helicopter mobile forces as fleets and unmanned automated frontier zones as forward naval bases. With helicopters, armies can use “the ground tactically without relying on it for mobility” (p. 121). With large helicopter-carrying submarines in the next century, these “amphibious light mechanized troops . . . [can] provide a potential for strategic surprise” (p. 180).

In contrast to his compelling analysis of maneuver and mobility, Gen Simpkin seems to strain in applying his ideas to current NATO realities. He claims that NATO’s doctrine of forward defense is bankrupt due to the “rotten planks” in its structure-i.e., lack of warning time, difficulties in coalition warfare, asymmetry of conventional forces, etc. If attacked by Warsaw Pact forces, we must trade space for time; then with skillful and judicious use of maneuver, attain a “restabilization” without causing either side to cross the nuclear or chemical threshold. Here, the author turns Clausewitz on his head and states that negotiation (politics) will be the continuation of war by other means. We would “hope,” he states, through postconflict negotiation, to regain territory lost initially. Considering the rather tenacious behavior the Soviets have demonstrated at negotiation tables, one tends to be leery of this optimistic outcome.

Unfortunately, the geographical and political realities of Western Europe do not seem to provide Gen Simpkin fertile ground on which to nurture maneuver warfare scenarios with favorable outcomes. One suspects this forces him into his prediction that Western European nations will move from a stance of “bellicism”-a term he attibutes to the noted military historian, Michael Howard, to describe nations which turn too eagerly to the use of armed force-to “protectivism,” in which armed forces will be used only “as a means of protecting a country’s existing territory and territorial waters against armed force” (P. 275). Nations pursuing such a policy will develop light mobile forces manned mainly by militia, construct unmanned fortifications with high technology sensors, and maintain a small submarineborne nuclear force de frappe. While the author finds a new word to label his view of a new policy, others may be justified in staying with an old word for an old policy: isolationism.

While Gen Simpkin provides a substantive and useful bibliography, the absence of footnotes is frustrating. In his introduction, he states his sources “are well enough known to be familiar to any reader likely to want to refer to them.” However, this reader would very much have liked, to have learned more about the “four or five nuclearpowered submarine catamarans, the size of the largest U.S. aircraft carrier. . . confirmed by several sources” (p. 48), which will carry Soviet heliborne assault brigades to distant shores. A cursory check through Jane’s and other sources was not illuminating regarding this new Soviet threat. Similarly, one would like to know more of the author’s rather startling revelation that most Sovietologists believe the Russians view their large conventional forces as “unusable.” If they do, why do they continue to build far beyond the needs of homeland defense? Finally, Gen Simpkin’s use of Britishisms is a bit annoying. In context, one can determine that “bombing up” a tank means fueling and arming it, but the constructions of “hiving off” or “putting paid” are less clear.

One feels a nagging ambivalence about Race to the Swtft. On first reading there is frustration with a lack of focus and unity and disagreement with some of the conclusions drawn. But on second reading, one finds so many nuggets of wisdom on the inner workings of operations and maneuver that the effort becomes more and more rewarding. Too few demonstrate Gen Simpkin’s understanding of the dynamics of warfare, and fewer still can bring such clarity to the murlciness of the battlefield. If the author stumbles, it is when he ventures into the field of geopolitics, a dangerous and subjective business at best. To use his musical analogy, the listener (reader) may not care for the tonality and rhythm of his music, but cannot fail to be impressed with the exposition of the efforts, talents, technical factors, and leadership required to make the sound. For the serious student of warfare and especially for the Marine “maneuver warfare specialist;” Race to the Swift is certainly worth reading.